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Interview with Professor Brigit Toebes

Date:10 June 2021
Prof. Brigit Toebes
Prof. Brigit Toebes

Brigit Toebes is a Professor of Health Law in a Global Context at the Faculty of Law, and coordinates and oversees the course International Health Law, which is taught within the International Human Rights Law LLM programme. She is also a member of the Global Health Law Groningen Research Centre and former Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the University of Groningen. We've asked her a few questions to learn more about her academic profile and perspectives on International Health Law.

What is your specific academic background, and what are your research interests? Do you currently work on any specific research projects?

I obtained a PhD in Human Rights Law in 1999 (focusing on the right to health as a human right in international law) and I have been working in the field of health and human rights for the past twenty-five years. My current research focus is on international health law as an emerging branch of international law, with a specific focus on the regulation of risk factors for chronic diseases (smoking and unhealthy diets). I have recently also focused on topics like the international regulation of infectious diseases and the desirability of compulsory vaccinations for Covid-19.


What courses do you teach within the Faculty? (in addition to International Health Law)

I also teach Public International Law within the LLB programme, and I participate in a range of other courses, including International Law in Practice and Honours courses. We also have a yearly summer course focusing on health and human rights, which is hosted this year by ELSA Groningen.


What do you enjoy teaching about the international Health Law course?

It is a huge pleasure to teach the course International Health Law on a yearly basis. It is a vibrant course which gives the opportunity to discuss lots of societal issues where international and domestic law play a role. Me and several guest lecturers go from systematically explaining the international standards to identifying how they are applied in international and domestic practice. We now also pay ample attention to the international regulation of infectious diseases. I very much enjoy discussing the health and societal issues with the students and to learn from their views and perspectives. Students are often very passionate about topics like mental health and abortion, and they are frequently concerned about the way things are regulated in their country of origin. The question that we ultimately seek to address is: how can law play a favourable role in improving global and domestic health? How do we regulate abortion optimally, in light of the international standards? My ideal is that students return to their home country with clear view on how their domestic health laws can be strengthened, in light of human rights.


How is the International Health Law course within the IHRL LLM unique compared to similar programmes elsewhere? 

We aim to train the students to become international and domestic health lawyers. What makes this course unique is the integration of international standards and domestic experiences. In other words, we make an effort to discuss the application of the international standards at the domestic level. Take the example of unhealthy diets: what are the implications of international standards for the domestic regulation of fast food? Should a sugar tax be introduced, and should we resort to stricter food labelling? We take similar approaches in relation to topics like mental health, environmental health protection, reproductive health, and medical-ethical issues such as sex selection and euthanasia. Many students write about the specific health law research interests in our Global Health Law Groningen Student Blog.


What career prospects do you think there could be for students who pursue careers in your specific legal field of expertise?

After the course, students often tell me that the course was an "eye-opener" for them, in the sense that they did not realize that becoming a health lawyer is an interesting and feasible option. The course also shows that human rights plays a key role in health law and practice, thus opening opportunities for students with a keen interest in working with human rights. There are many unforeseen career opportunities, including working for one’s Ministry of Health and other domestic public health bodies, hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, international and NGOs and other bodies focusing on health matters, or getting involved in health law litigation. The protection of health will pose many legal questions for the decennia to come and health lawyers will be needed, both at domestic and international levels. I also try to make an effort to discuss these career opportunities with the students on an individual basis. I have many contacts in the field and I have been able to assist quite a few students in taking the next step.


Has the Covid-19 situation or any other recent international events affected the way in which experts in your field practise/operate their professions?

The current crisis has underscored the importance of international governance in the field of health. It has shown that knowledge about the international mechanisms and standards protecting health is essential, also for domestic bodies, and that the international and the domestic are intrinsically connected. Covid-19 started in China, but combating this and a next crisis requires that all countries in the world are prepared and in control. This also goes for other health-related concerns, and I am quite often approached by domestic bodies asking my advice on the regulation of health-related matters, in light of the international standards.


Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing your same field of legal expertise?

My advice would be to open your eyes to the many bodies that practice health law, and to the fact that human rights are omnipresent in this field. There are many opportunities beyond the more generic international or domestic human rights NGOs that students often aspire to work for. Health laws are designed at the health ministry and health lawyers are needed there to ensure that these laws are human rights proof; hospitals and other health bodies have to take decisions about life and death on a daily basis, decisions which are grounded in health law. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for bodies operating in other socioeconomic fields, including education, social protection, and housing.

- Interview by: Dr. Chris Brennan, Marketing Advisor, Faculty of Law


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